Joe Wuenning, WS Thermal Processing Technology Inc.-The Interview

Today Gord Montgomery of “The Monty Heat Treat News” Speaks with Mr. Joe Wuenning, President of WS Thermal Processing Technology Inc.

Gord Montgomery; I am going to go out on a limb and say unequivocally that the foremost topic in the heat treatment industry these days is that of energy and everything which that term encompasses. The cost of energy, the energy source, CO2 emissions and how to save on energy costs. To get answers to these questions we are speaking with Mr. Joe Wuenning, President of WS Thermal Processing Technology Inc., a true expert on gas burner technology.

Joe with that prelude I have to say I have been looking forward to speaking with you about this extremely interesting topic. Before I get ahead of myself perhaps you could give us some personal background; how you arrived in this field, what your background is and what your current position is.

Originally, I wanted to become a naval engineer and received my education in mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Aachen in Germany. In 1989, a little before I received my diploma, my father invented flameless oxidation – FLOX®. This interesting new combustion technology made me change course and I started my PhD with the topic of flameless oxidation. Once completed, I relocated to the US in order to start WS Inc. in 1997. Since I moved back to Germany around the year 2000, I am responsible for our German headquarters WS GmbH as well. Since then, I work closely together with my father, who founded WS GmbH. Even today, my father, who was born in 1930, is still active in R&D in the company and is present every day.

Lets move from you personally to WS Thermal Processing Technology-how about the history of the company, size of the company and what you have to offer. The German company WS GmbH was founded in 1982 and the US subsidiary WS Inc. was founded in 1997. WS Inc. was a one-man show during the first year. I rented a building in Elyria, Ohio. Soon after, Steve and Rich became part of the team, followed by Helen and Dave and they are all still on board with us today. Currently we are about 8 people at WS Inc. but we would hire more if we could find them. WS Inc. moved into its own building in 2011. We offer efficient low NOx burners, spare parts as well as repair services. Our service engineers ensure proper maintenance on site for our customers. My estimate is that today, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 WS burners installed in the U.S. Innovative North American furnace builders installed many of them and just as many arrived here in furnaces from European manufacturers as well.

At WS GmbH, our headquarters in Germany, we have a team of around 90 employees to develop, build, and maintain the 100,000+ burners we sold globally so far. Over the years, we founded some affiliated companies, for example to apply the FLOX® technology in different fields, such as the energy sector. All in all, our group of companies employs about 170 people today.

Where do we stand in the development of gas burners? Perhaps another way to phrase this would be; has the basic design of gas burners changed much in the past 20 years or so?

A common denominator for WS burners is the combination of the burner and the heat exchanger for waste heat recovery into one compact unit. That is unchanged but over the years, new and more efficient heat exchangers were introduced. While FLOX® burners were still an exception 25 years ago, these burners, providing extremely low NOx emissions, became a standard nowadays.

I am really curious about how efficiency has changed over the years. Could you compare a1980’s burner to a 2022 burner in terms of efficiency?

In the 1980´s it was still pretty common to heat industrial furnaces with cold air burners, meaning without any sort of combustion air preheat. At a typical furnace temperature of around 1,800 F, this relates to an efficiency of only 50% or less. So more than half of the energy is lost with the hot exhaust stream. Using heat recovery, these losses can be reduced significantly. Modern recuperative or regenerative burners provide efficiencies of more than 80% (exhaust gas losses < 20%) and still meet very strict NO x -emission regulations.

What is the focus of development for modern gas burners? Is it to reduce emissions? Save on energy costs? Reduce maintenance? Or (I suspect) a combination of all of these?

Of course, efficiency, low NOx and maintenance are still in our focus. However, there is also a new request for fuel flexible burners, which are capable to burn hydrogen or other synthetic fuel, which might be available in the not so far future. The life of an industrial furnace is often 30 years and more, so it is necessary to think about future fuel and energy options already today. Properly designed, a burner (and a furnace) can be prepared for these scenarios at little extra cost as compared to the cost of complicated retrofits or even replacements in the future.

Now this is the question I have been itching to ask; will the stampede toward clean, renewable electricity spell the death knell of heating with natural gas? Do you think in 25 or 50 years natural gas will still be the energy of choice for heat treaters?

I think in the long-term future the vast majority of “primary energy” will be generated in the form of renewable electricity. Heat treaters, however, will preferably use chemically stored electricity in the form of hydrogen or another chemical energy carrier. Fuel flexible burners will ensure a smooth transition, because today nobody is able to exactly predict when and where these future fuels will be available. In the meantime, properly designed burners can be operated using natural gas but will be able to make the switch when necessary.

This question goes hand in hand with the one above, are you personally seeing more interest in heating with electricity?

There is some interest in the industry because there are no local emissions using electricity. However, in Germany and in many parts of the United States, today’s CO2-emissions will actually increase with electric heating because of the CO2 emissions from the coal or gas fired power plants. Since most processes are not flexible enough to perfectly follow the generation pattern of renewable electricity like solar and wind, this is unlikely to change in the near future. It will therefore be necessary to chemically store fluctuating renewable electricity. And once you have a chemical energy carrier it will be most efficient to use it directly as opposed to generating electricity again with considerable losses.

Clean, green and reduced emissions appear to be a selling point in Europe but my own opinion is that these are not selling points for the vast bulk of North American heat treaters. Would you agree or disagree?

I would partly agree today but that could change soon. In a few years, it might not be accepted by the society anymore to buy a luxury car, which is produced using “grey” steel just as it is not accepted to buy a bench for your garden made with timber from a tropical rain-forest. Even today, we are already seeing a significant increase of interest into energy saving technology in the US. The last trade shows in North America were interesting in that respect because we witnessed how many companies already suffer from increased energy prices. The situation in Europe shows that external shocks can quickly make energy a decisive factor. Saving energy is therefore also contributing to increased resilience of any country.

A North American controls company offers a very interesting and relatively inexpensive system which automatically tells users if their burners are tuned correctly (I will add that it tells the operators when a burner needs to be tuned but does not automatically change the air/gas mixture). Do you have any experience with this technology? Do you think it is something worth looking at?

I know too little about that system to give a proper assessment, but I would be interested to learn more about it. Generally speaking, proper tuning of a burner is very important for both its life and its efficiency. As burner efficiency increases, a majority of losses through excess air are avoided, which is why a high-efficiency burner can and should be tuned to a safe fuel/air ratio. Knowing when a burner is out of tune will be helpful to extend the life of a burner.

I hear a lot of talk about hydrogen combustion being the future of gas heating-what are your personal thoughts?

I think it is the future. Already in 1989, I tested a WS recuperative burner using hydrogen as a fuel. It was done as a term paper for the University and it worked just fine. Hydrogen is a very good and versatile energy carrier and the thermal processing industry has already been used to handling it for decades. Many of our customers have a full-sized hydrogen infrastructure already in place, e.g. for atmosphere furnaces.

I hear a lot of talk these days about how burner deliveries have increased dramatically in the past couple of years. Is this correct or does it just apply to certain brands?

In our industry, it is always an up and down especially since sales are strictly dependent on furnace projects being realized. While I have not seen a dramatic increase of overall quantities in the last years, we do see a significant shift towards the ultra-high efficiency options. Energy did not only become more expensive but in many cases also sparse, which makes more and more customers aim for the best available technology rather than the cheapest.

Joe the world has challenges these days-lots of them. As a manufacturer what are your main challenges?

In general, we like challenges. They make us stronger and lead to innovation. Something that worries me, however, is the difficulty to find good people who are willing to work with their hands. This is a challenge in almost all highly developed countries.

What are your personal goals both for yourself and WS? As an example do you aim to have the company the largest in the industry? Are you driven to come up with the most advanced burner in the world? Are you aiming to have the lowest emission system in the world? Perhaps some combination of all of these?

Becoming the largest company in the industry is certainly not a goal for us. We like to focus on quality rather than size. As an owner operated company, we concentrate on long-term success, not short-term optimization of financial figures. Our ambition is to create value for our customers by providing not only well-designed products, but also by supporting them along the whole life-cycle. Technologically, in our sector, I think we already provide the most advanced burners with the lowest emissions in the industry and it is our goal to do that also in the future, using green fuels. To achieve this goal, we are continuing to massively invest in R&D, covering all aspects of an even more efficient and sustainable future in thermal processing.

Joe I really appreciate the time and feel like I will be able to answer questions about burner technology with more knowledge than I previously had. I thank you for your time.

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